As Pakistan goes into the 27th Conference of Parties (COP27) at Sharm-al-Shaikh, Egypt, it is important to address a few challenges squarely, while disabusing a few misunderstandings.
Many imagine that there is a pot of gold at the end of such conferences, or that it is a forum where historic colonial wrongs can be addressed, such as reparations for exploitation, or where IFIs can settle chronic balance of payments issues for debt-strapped countries such as Pakistan. It is none of the above. Debt is rescheduled at the IMF or the multilateral donors club. It is not a function of COP27 at all. Neither is it a donors conference.
The COP platform is a UN forum for climate issues, where nation-states come together at the highest levels to debate, disclose, data-share, decide, and create frameworks for the cooperation that is pivotal to solving the triple planetary crisis of climate change, pollution and biodiversity. All decisions at this forum are dependent on consensus; there is no Security Council to enforce decisions, and no adjudicating forum where lack of progress on pledges for reducing emissions or not paying for pollution is actually penalized. All decisions are rooted in the moral principle of universal justice, but with no guardrails to stop slippages, let alone architecture to either tax or police emission-defaulters or finance-pledge backtrackers.
Today if the UN system is called toothless, as hegemons go into wars without the prescribed UN sanction to do so, the COP system is even more fragile, and often resiled as deeply flawed. The flaws are obvious, as the Greta Thunbergs of the world insist. They often normalize delays and inaction that are existential in impact. But the problem is that this is all the world has right now. Without COPs on Climate Change, and another one solely on Biodiversity, we are all left to our own silos to make the ruinous decisions that have led us to this moment of acute climate stress.
Human activity and unchecked exploitation of natural resources has led countries to the realization that global warming is triggering an epochal imbalance in the earth’s climate and environment, leading to catastrophic climate-induced events. The good news is that science is slowly triumphing over climate change denialists, but the bad news is that it is not fast enough. Targets that were collectively set for country emissions, for actions taken to reduce them, and for pathways to energy and other transitions that might save the planet from burning up are way off the mark. The plan of keeping GHG emissions down to 1.5 C from pre-industrial levels, for instance, was the global goal agreed in 2015, but scientific evidence suggests that today’s trajectory could take us to a 3 degree celsius world.
Where do countries like Pakistan stand on all of this? A harrowing year of climate-induced heatwaves, forest fires, glacial lake outburst events in the north at triple their norm, and catastrophic flooding at 6-7 times the average in the south has left no doubt in anyone’s mind that we need to act fast to save our populations from further trauma. A new development reform agenda is being drawn up, with water management and conservation at its core, and then coordinated and resourced to rebuild with climate resilient flood, and drought- planning in mind. Existing laws in the provinces have to be enforced along with a huge injection of climate governance capacity enhancement at the local and district levels. Urban and rural infrastructure has to be rebuilt from the down up, especially in the province of Sindh which withstood over 70 per cent of the social and housing damage. Reform is crucial to adaptation.
Yet, at the multilateral level, which is literally one of the three tasks of a federal ministry set up for treaty obligations, dealing with climate donors, and national policy-making, the path is clear. Provinces enforce the projects we help sign on at their own pace, but as policy recommenders we need to prioritize 'adaptation', which is the building of capacity and shields for facing climate change. So far Pakistan has been privileging 'mitigation', mostly in response to calls at international forums, which is principally about reducing GHG emissions and enhancing our carbon sinks by planting trees. The reasons to re-set focus are obvious. No amount of formal mitigation will change the warming impacts Pakistan faces. Given that Pakistan has a small carbon footprint, less than one per cent of global emissions, without prejudice to our mitigation goals, we need to shift focus on getting on with adaptation plans to save lives, soil, food, water, cities and well-being of our citizens.
Pakistan’s first goal at the upcoming COP is to bring the Global Goal on Adaptation to the front and center of COP’s agenda priorities. Second, the nature of green financing must change. At this point all climate funding is only accessible via the GEF, GCF or the Adaptation Fund, and the latter remains under-capitalized. The existing mechanism is onerous and extremely competitive. Countries have to projectize their needs and then compete with other bids to be awarded such financing. This is difficult for developing countries, and we end up receiving very small amounts relative to needs and pace of climate change. If at all a project is awarded, it often takes 2-3 years to operationalize its funding. By which time the country’s needs have changed on the ground.
Third, we need to mainstream 'Loss and Damage' as part of the green diplomacy agenda. When a disaster hits, there is no external window other than UN flash appeals for help and, despite their importance, those are overstretched and under-funded. Getting it on the provisional agenda for the upcoming COP27 is one of Pakistan’s key successes, but in the larger scheme of things at a diplomatic forum where nothing is enforceable, these are largely moral successes. The thinking behind this initiative is that countries must not be forced to resort to the “begging bowl” model to enlist funds that should be institutionalized as an entitlement, but current receptivity tells us that even this seems like a bridge too far. At the same time, as per NDCs, Pakistan will continue its mitigation plans, which are the Green Pakistan Initiative and a path to renewables instead of fossil fuels.
Despite likely resistance by some countries, Pakistan is now ready to prioritize and mobilize climate financing and find ways to reset the climate model of negotiations at the global level. The principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR) is what the COP system pivots on, as big emitters are meant to take on bigger responsibilities compared to the smaller emitters, in the hope of equipping them to deal with unprecedented stresses on their people and economies. Yet, for years, literally from 2009, when promises were made to unlock $100 billion a year for developing countries to take on green financing, only a fraction of the promised funds has been shared. The distrust between several parties, or countries, has now piled up like a landfill of toxic waste.
Whether we can change it or not, it is important to say that the current bargain between the Global North and Global South is not working. At the same time, a breakdown would be even worse. The COP27 system allows each country to have a vote, in the interests of parity. It also makes decision-making difficult as each country has a veto too. Putting adversarial 'reparations' into such a mix is futile and in fact, dangerous, designed to break any small possibility of change. Participants who know how the system works realize that the process is not about intellectual grandstanding. It is about seeking climate justice, but also finding common ground for the survival of the human race. It is of paramount importance that the world now bands together in this fight. Pakistan has taken a lead, but it can only do what others agree to.
In the end, the fight to save the planet may become one country at a time; the vulnerable will go down first. Either way it will become a race against time for some, while for others with more resources to adapt, it will be a delayed decision. Our job is to remind others that delaying climate action is like making vulnerability a death sentence. And once one ecosystem is fast tracked to die, it takes others down as well. What goes on in Pakistan will not stay in Pakistan.
The writer is the federal minister for climate change.